Friday, June 13, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: The Paleface, Cops and My Wife's Relations (all 1922)

The Paleface (1922)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Little Chief Paleface), Virginia Fox (Indian Maiden), Joe Roberts (The Indian Chief).

We’ve already had to address Keaton’s use of unfortunate blackface in his brilliant short The Play House – and we’ll have to address it again when we get to his feature College (1927) – and with The Paleface, we have to address Keaton’s use of Redface – casting his frequent co-stars Virginia Fox and Joe Roberts as Native Americans – not to mention many others - in makeup to make them look darker. There was nothing overtly racist, except for the black face of course, about The Play House – he doesn’t really indulge in racist humor or stereotypes in that film, although that doesn’t excuse the use of blackface. The Paleface is slightly more problematic however. Keaton indulges in any number of stereotypes about Native Americans – there are jokes about scalping people, their war dances, and some pigeon English in the intertitles (“Me Like Indian Squaw”). Yet what is also undeniable is that Keaton has the Native Americans as the good guys in the film – and paints the rich, white landowners who are trying to steal the Natives land as the bad guys. This doesn’t fully excuse Keaton’s use of red face – an unfortunate practice that continued for decades in Hollywood – but at the same time you do have to admit that Keaton’s view of Native Americans is far more positive than most depictions we would see on screen until the 1950s, when it slowly started to change.

If you can get by Keaton’s use of Redface, than the film itself is quite enjoyable – not one of Keaton’s best shorts but still quite entertaining. Keaton stumbles across the Native American tribe while chasing a butterfly with a net – in an hilarious bit of physical comedy. There will be more genius bits of physical humor (like when Keaton is tied to a pole that isn’t firmly in the ground when the Native Americans want to burn him at the stake) – and a large fight and chase sequence near the end, when Keaton – now firmly aligned with the Natives – takes on the wealthy landowners. The Redface isn’t the only sign of how much things have changed since The Paleface – there is also a scene where Keaton wraps himself in asbestos to prevent himself from catching fire.

One of the challenges for modern audiences will always have when watching things from the past is dealing with practices that seemed perfectly acceptable at the time, that are now all but unthinkable. I respect those who will never be able to see past things like the use of blackface or “redface” or “yellowface” (also a well-established practice that lasted for decades) – but I also think you have to, at least in part, meet the film halfway. I don’t think Keaton had racist intent when making The Paleface. That doesn’t excuse his use of redface in the film, or indulging in stereotypes. But it does help explain it.

Cops (1922)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Young Man), Virginia Fox (Mayor's Daughter), Joe Roberts (Police Chief), Edward F. Cline (Hobo).

Leave it to Buster Keaton to get involved in so many misunderstandings that he eventually has the entire police force chasing him through town. That is what happens to Keaton in Cops – where he plays a young man whose girlfriend tells him she’ll never marry him until he becomes a “big business man”. He ends up with (well, steals, really) a rich man’s wallet and ends up with his money. He is conned by a hobo into thinking he has bought an entire family’s belongings, and also a horse and wagon – which he drives through town on while it’s bulging with stuff. He ends up in the middle of the police parade, angering everyone, and having to elude capture.

Keaton always loved large, elaborate chase sequences – his feature Seven Chances (1925) is basically one large one, full of jaw dropping stunts by Keaton. Cops isn’t quite at that level – for one thing, it’s really only the second half of the film that is the chase, so it’s 10 minutes as opposed to nearly twenty minutes of Seven Chances – but it’s damn close. I found the buildup to the chase a little bit slow – but once the chase gets going, the film is a marvel – in particular there is a great sequence involving a ladder teetering on a wall that has to rank among Keaton’s most inspired. And the final shot in the film is brilliant.

Overall, Cops ranks among Keaton’s best short films. Once the chase gets going, this is pretty much as good as anything he has done in terms of physical comedy. A short little masterwork.

My Wife’s Relations (1922)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Husband), Wallace Beery (Photographer), Monte Collins (The Father), Wheezer Dell (Brother), Harry Madison (Brother), Kate Price (Kat - the Wife), Joe Roberts (Brother), Tom Wilson (Brother).

Keaton goes from one of his best shorts in Cops to one of his worst with My Wife’s Relations. Through a series of misunderstandings too ridiculous to explain, Keaton finds himself accidentally married to Kat (Kate Price) – a large, angry woman with a large, angry father and several large angry brothers. Now if you accidentally marry someone, for the most part, you’d just it annulled. Not Keaton and Price – she takes him home and to her family to live. Keaton has some nice moments dealing with this family of idiots, but I found much of My Wife’s Relations rather mean spirited – including a sequence where Keaton pretends to be sleeping so he can repeatedly hit his wife and not get blamed for it. The film also drags on for too long, especially considering there isn’t really much of a plot – things go from bad to worse when his new “family” think he’s rich and bend over backwards to be nice to him, only to become raving lunatics when they discover the truth. Oddly, this one is a little longer than most of Keaton’s shorts – not much (only about five minutes or so) but for a short with flow problems, it doesn’t help.

My Wife’s Relations has a moment or two that’s good (I like Keaton’s ingenious plan to get some meat at dinner) but overall, it ranks among my least favorite of Keaton’s short films. It’s not painful to watch, but it’s hardly the work of genius so many of his films are.

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